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3 Stars Movies

Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t bargain or negotiate in The Fugitive

Everyone remembers Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive for Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ chemistry (despite rarely sharing the screen) and its iconic action pieces (especially the train and dam sequences). But all of this must hang upon a plot framework, and the lopsided movie’s momentum dissipates as it gets bogged down in the details. The first half is so singularly focused on thrills, that it fails to set up the unexciting pharmaceutical company corruption details introduced too late in the game. For a movie like this, the conspiracy should be as interesting as the action.

It’s also hard to overlook the fact that the Marshal’s (Jones) most defining character trait, that the audience is clearly expected to admire, is that he proudly does not bargain or negotiate. Faced with a hostage situation involving a person of color, his solution is to summarily execute. I suppose this is to raise the stakes for the titular fugitive — you’ll be shot dead before you’re arrested — but even to early ’90s audiences, it’s impossible to imagine a U.S. Marshal treating an affluent white felon the same way as a poor black felon. Seems awkward now that this role earned Jones an Academy Award and a sequel.

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3 Stars Movies

The sour overpowers the sweet in About Last Night…

Even though I think I have to casually give Edward Zwick’s About Last Night… only three stars here, there’s a lot to commend it. There’s no high concept or clever hook to slap on the poster: no one falls in love with their maid or the magnate destroying their small business, no one gets amnesia and falls in love with the wrong sibling from the wrong side of the tracks.

“Get me a gin & tonic or I’ll kill you.”

As a sincere romantic dramedy built on top of a David Mamet play, About Last Night… can’t help but fight its schizophrenic nature. Mamet’s trademark macho aggression keeps piercing through, and the sourness often overpowers the sweet. Several Letterboxd reviews note that the film hasn’t aged well, and while I don’t disagree, I think it’s pretty clear that Bernie (Jim Belushi) is telegraphed as a pig, and if not a virgin, then at least a pathetically insecure liar. That the ostensibly more evolved Danny (Rob Lowe) entertains Bernie’s boasting is a sign of his naïveté, and Bernie’s bad influence is part of what causes his relationship with Debbie (Demi Moore) to fail.

But just when you think this is a unicorn amongst donkeys — a rare non-H.E.A. — the coda in which Danny and Debbie reconcile, while still keeping everything else in their lives that led to their breakup, feels inauthentic. About Last Night… does not compare favorably to Marty (1955), where the protagonist rejects his toxic friends in favor of a healthy relationship with a woman he loves and respects.

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4 Stars Movies

Like a pizza in the rain: Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild

You know you’ve graduated from Movie Buff into Old Movie Buff when you start saying “they don’t make movies like this any more”… but what if they really don’t make movies like this any more?

Catching up on Jonathan Demme’s filmography with Something Wild and Married to the Mob has really brought home the realization that midbudget romantic comedies/dramas have disappeared, especially any suffused with this much personality and quirk.

“Like a pizza in the rain, nobody wants to take you home”

David Byrne & Celia Cruz

Something interesting is happening in the background of every shot, and every supporting & background actor is an eccentric. A simple shot of Jeff Daniels making a phone call has a fascinating person simply standing in the background, a quick scene of buying a used car features John Waters, a New York City diner and a Virginia gas station are staffed by eccentric personalities, and a quick shot of Daniels and Melanie Griffith leaving a motel includes some background action of a family unloading a car that looks wacky enough to be its own National Lampoon Vacation movie. When today’s streaming/A24/Blumhouse financing model strictly limits the cast and locations of movies, a movie like Something Wild may not even be possible any more.

And of course Demme dipped into his deep rolodex of music buddies for an amazing soundtrack lineup, including: David Byrne, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, The Feelies, Sister Carol, and more.

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3 Stars Movies

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is Terry Gilliam’s 8½

If I hadn’t seen The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with my own eyes, I’d have trouble believing it exists. So Terry Gilliam has finally made his Quixote; but it might be more accurate to say that he finally made his .

In a way, Gilliam has been making this movie over and over for years. Longtime fans will recognize his longtime themes of guilt, unhealthy fantasy, escape, and delusion. His infamous, years-long struggle is cleverly written into the story. Adam Driver plays a film director reflexively hailed as a genius, but for a work so obscure that it is remarkable for it to surface in a bootleg copy — but yet somehow also so well-known that he is asked to superficially replicate it for a television commercial. I wonder if it was ever contemplated to incorporate the small amount of footage shot in 1998 with Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, but I suspect the last thing anybody involved with this cursed project wanted was more legal issues.

I appreciate that while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is extremely Gilliamesque in its themes, it is rarely egregiously so in its art direction. In the 1996 documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam observed that by that point in his career, craftspeople were so aware of and influenced by his work that he found they could deliver Gilliamesque costumes, props, and sets without his input. Things escalated to the point of self-parody in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus‘ woozy digital phantasmagoria, but thankfully things here are once again mostly practical.

Trivial perhaps, but if I may add a heartfelt complaint: a pox on Screen Media Films for authoring a blu-ray specifically designed to not remember where you stopped, and to disable the FFWD, NEXT, or MENU buttons during the trailers. I will never understand this kind of consumer hostility. Why punish the movie lovers who have paid to own or rent your film?

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4 Stars Movies

Sit on my interface: Hackers is a 90s treasure

I can’t believe I haven’t had the pleasure until now. Energetic, funny, quotable, and scattered with fantastic montage sequences. The moment when Johnny Lee Miller sees Angelina Jolie for the first time is choice. And check the surreal imagery and avant-garde editing of its characters’ erotic nightmares — seriously; more than one!

It’s all laughably preposterous, but in a good way. And I’m not even talking about its hilariously fantastical vision of internet technology — I’m talking about: Miller’s accent, Lorraine Bracco’s horny sexbomb lawyer, Fisher Steven’s hair, the floppy discs tucked in trousers, the animated cityscapes of cyberspace, the rollerblades. Most of the actors playing high school kids are too old, and most of the actors playing grownups are too young. I could go on. A delight.

“Eww… hard copy.”

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3 Stars Movies TV

L.A. Takedown is the rough draft for Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat

I finally, finally, finally had the opportunity to cross L.A. Takedown off my movie watchlist — a largely unavailable holy grail that I’ve been desperately curious to see for years.

If director Michael Mann had not reworked this material into the masterpiece Heat, L.A. Takedown would probably be pushed so far down his IMDB or Letterboxd listings that it would get lost behind his more readily available TV work like Crime Story and Miami Vice. But for students of his work, L.A. Takedown is an incredibly fascinating relic; like reading a rough first draft of a well-known novel.

It’s amazing to see how virtually the same material (plot, structure, character, and even exact dialogue) in the same order — including the deafening downtown LA shootout — can comprise the ingredients to both this and the polished near-perfection of Heat. There can’t be many precedents for this; maybe Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own The Man Who Knew Too Much?

Aside from everything it shares with Heat, it’s just as interesting to consider what L.A. Takedown lacks:

  • 100% less Henry Rollins & Tone Loc, and it’s the poorer for it.
  • What I consider one of the key moments in Heat: Hanna (Al Pacino) spotting a sad woman alone in a car, and deducing that Neil (Robert De Niro) has seen the heat around the corner.
  • Acting. I know, ouch, right? The main cast is pretty blah (and hard to tell apart, to be honest), but in supporting roles: Michael Rooker! Xander Berkeley (who’s also in Heat)!
  • Another of Heat‘s unfair advantages: a killer soundtrack. But this does have the then-contemporary Jane’s Addiction live on stage, and an exclusive Billy Idol song, which isn’t too shabby for a TV movie.

It’s also difficult to imagine a time when US TV networks would finance and produce a violent, handheld, and hard boiled movie like this — any movie at all, really, even if it was originally intended as a backdoor series pilot episode. I’m not even sure what the hook or selling point would be for a casual 1980s TV audience, but I’m sure it’s no accident that L.A. Takedown has more of a “just deserts” moralistic ending than Heat.

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2 Stars Movies

Daylight is anti-city-living propaganda

The best part of every disaster movie is the opening montage depicting unrelated people boarding the boat that’s going to sink, the airplane that’s going to crash on a desert island, the tower that’s going to inferno, or the bus that’s going to be hijacked in an overly complicated scheme by a charismatic villain. These kinds of movies like to pretend that catastrophe is the great equalizer, uniting victims across class, race, and gender, but we all know that’s just pretend.

Rob Cohen’s 1996 Daylight exemplifies the genre’s failings, notably the stock stereotypes (the sassy Caribbean woman, the guy who loves his sneakers, convicts in a prison bus, etc.), and that there’s always a macho Sylvester Stallone-type around to take charge.

Daylight also earns major demerits for its pervasive anti-city-living propaganda. There’s no way that Amy Brenneman’s character, a struggling divorcée living in a walkup rat trap studio, owns a car. This was clearly written for the tourist who happily dips their toes into Manhattan for a Broadway show, an overrated cupcake, and maybe The Met, but then turns right around and says “sure, it was nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there…”

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3 Stars Movies

Motherless Brooklyn is a civics lesson wrapped in an actorly exercise

I understand the generally negative reception that Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn encountered, but I didn’t dislike it for two very mundane reasons:

1. I happened to watch it in the middle of binging HBO’s Perry Mason miniseries (with which it coincidentally happens to have a great deal in common), and frankly, Motherless Brooklyn comes out on top. Perry Mason‘s unrelenting dour tone and gruesome violence could have used a dose of Motherless Brooklyn‘s lightness and humor.

2. I recognized at least one location as being just a few blocks from my apartment. Funny how a few simple props like a vintage phone booth and some old newspapers can zap a Brooklyn street decades into the past.

But yes, Motherless Brooklyn is not great in and of itself. Ed Norton’s performance is little more than an actorly exercise, and it’s bewildering how many other characters his character Lionel meets are so patient and understanding of his tics. Alec Baldwin’s growly performance is more The Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns than Glengarry Glen Ross. And for a movie about racist civic policies, it’s awkward for it to feature Michael K. Williams as the apparently unnamed “Trumpet Man”, a character dangerously close to magical black person cliche.

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2 Stars Movies

Toys shoot to kill in G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Jon M. Chu’s 2013 toy-based sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation is inappropriately cruel for a movie based on children’s toys/cartoons/comics, in which nobody ever really got hurt. The gun fetishism is unsurprising, but it is surprising that its heroes and villains both shoot to kill. There’s a spectacular amount of onscreen death: first half the cast, then an entire city.

It’s also a mess structurally — particularly all the ninja business, which seems crudely spliced in from a different movie. But it does have its pleasures:

  • The pure action poetry of the mountainside monastery fight sequence.
  • Jonathan Pryce clearly enjoying himself. You know he positively leapt at the chance to play an evil master of disguise impersonating the US President. But today, the assumed reverence for the Commander in Chief now seems like it’s from another century.
  • Lee Byung-hun’s torso. My goodness.
  • Campy Cobra Commander strutting in slow motion never stops being funny.
  • A handful of actually amusing one-liners, so props to whomever punched up the script — wish you could have fixed more.
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2 Stars Movies

The Hunt is weak tea, at a time that calls for strong coffee

I watched Craig Zobel’s The Hunt mostly out of curiosity, to see what the red hats were so worked up about. Turns out it is not what the American fascists assumed, but neither is it otherwise. There is potential for satire somewhere in the premise, but it’s too confused and unfocused to be anything other than just more both-sides-ism. Besides, Kevin Smith already covered similar territory in 2011 with Red State.

The Hunt‘s gentle caricature of Trumpism is weak tea, at a time that calls for strong coffee. The movie seems more interested in taking shots against political correctness — a pitifully tired target in 2020. Does anyone find it funny anymore that it’s polite to try to refer to people as they identify, and not how someone else identifies them? This is especially infuriating when Trumpism is currently leading to police rioting in the streets, government inaction while a pandemic is killing thousands, a resurgence of overt racism, and eager submission to authoritarianism. But no, let’s make jokes about how libtards like NPR, har har.

The Hunt seems to equate liberalism with wealth, which looks just plain retrograde at a time when Americans are marching in the streets for equality and to please not to be murdered by Officer Friendly. If I were to stretch and strain to give this movie more credit that it deserves, perhaps the point is to frame America’s current divisions as primarily class driven, with ideology as performative cloaking. But I doubt it’s being that clever.

Also, I must say the shared DNA with Donnie Darko was unexpected, and Hillary Swank and Betty Gilpin are superstars that deserve better showcases than this.

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